Here are two things you can always count on from WWE: It will always crave mainstream attention and it will always try to lure celebrities into the wrestling world. From WWE’s perspective, it applies a sheen of pop-culture acceptance to wrestling’s pug-nosed image, and it shows how wrestling is intertwined with the worlds of sports and entertainment. From ringside appearances by celebs — Fred Durst! Rick Rubin! Members of the Baltimore Ravens! — to the uninspired roster of guest hosts on Raw in recent years — Bob Barker! Al Sharpton! Florence Henderson! — to the higher-wattage stars trotted out for WrestleMania — Lawrence Taylor! Floyd Mayweather! Snooki! — WWE’s desire for crossover appeal is constant. The trend started with WrestleMania I, when Muhammad Ali, Billy Martin, Liberace, and the Rockettes were all imported for the fragile WWF’s make-or-break moment. For the past couple years, the main celebrity slot at Mania has been filled by The Rock, whose biggest claim to fame, perhaps paradoxically, is his wrestling career. Rock is headlining again this year, but is he enough to fulfill Vince McMahon’s never-ending quest for cultural relevance? Could there be another high-profile name up WWE’s sleeve? Could that person be Glenn Beck? Could McMahon and Beck be conspiring to combine pro wrestling and political radio into an unholy amalgam of lowbrow hucksterism?
As Beck might say, I’m just asking questions.
Alberto Del Rio won the World Heavyweight Championship in January. Long saddled with the character of an evil Mexican millionaire, he had recently turned face and found communion with WWE fans, 20 percent of whom (according to WWE) are Latino. With Rey Mysterio’s looming retirement, WWE has been searching for a new ambassador to Latino fans in the United States and Latin America. They tried Sin Cara in that role, but he broke into a thousand tiny pieces, so Del Rio got the call. Now they needed to establish this new star, and what better way than by finding a vile, Latino-hating villain to serve as his foil?
Enter Jack Swagger. Swagger had been around for a while, mostly as upper-mid-card filler. His all-American visage and collegiate wrestling background pigeonholed him as a poor man’s Kurt Angle. For much of his career, Swagger has been called “The All-American American,” which may be a nod to John McCain’s “the American president Americans have been waiting for” motto from 2008. But “John McCain” was an even weaker wrestling angle than he was a presidential candidate. Swagger seemed every bit as doomed and purposeless as McCain’s ill-fated campaign. Recently, however, Swagger has evolved into something darker. After a five-month hiatus, Swagger returned in early February with a scraggly beard and newly shaggy hair hanging from his 6-foot-6 frame. He looks like a survivalist Übermensch. He had new entrance music that sounded like it was lifted from a Fox News segment about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He also had a new mouthpiece in Zeb Colter, a Vietnam vet and tea-party militiaman who directed the brunt of his patriotic fury at undocumented Mexican immigrants who “steal” jobs from hardworking Americans.
It was hard to figure out what to make of this story line, given WWE’s not-so-progressive history with Latino and immigration issues and its stereotype-driven treatment of race. As far back as the 1980s, WWF commentators Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan flung racial jeers at Latino wrestlers. Ventura would refer to Tito Santana as “Chico” and call his finishing move the “flying burrito.” When Santana was taking a beating in the ring, Ventura would say things like, “I betcha Chico wishes he was back selling tacos in Tijuana right now!” Heenan was no better: “Tito Santana is like a cue ball — the harder you strike him, the more English you get out of him.” Even in the modern era, WWE has introduced characters like The Mexicools, three luchadors who rode a “Juan Deere” lawnmower to the ring; and “Los Guerreros,” a thugged-out Latino tag team (made up of two experienced and widely admired wrestlers) who drove a lowrider to the ring and proclaimed, “We lie, we cheat, we steal.” John Bradshaw Layfield, whose (final) character was a conservative Texas moneyman, played the anti-Latino angle from the opposite side. In one story line, he traveled to the Texas border, found a family of crossers, and literally kicked them back to Mexico. His reward for this act was a match with Eddie Guerrero for the WWE Championship.1 WWE fans understand that all wrestling characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, and that the sport tends to be an equal opportunity offender when it comes to racial prejudice, jingoistic xenophobia, and sexual innuendo. But even within that context, Latino wrestlers have had it particularly bad in recent years.
In real life, John Layfield has opinions about immigration, too.
But there is something different about Swagger and Colter. They aren’t merely the latest chapter in wrestling’s unfinished treatise on Latino stereotyping. When Swagger and Colter created a YouTube channel to promote their rants, their story line found its groove. The first video was an underproduced one-shot monologue set against a wooden fence with a Gadsden flag bobbing in the breeze. It begins with Zeb turning on the camcorder and walking back in front of the camera to start talking. It was an awkward, rambling revelation titled “IMMIGRATION” and lamented the end of the American dream with all the passion of a drunken discourse in a small-town dive bar. Their description of undocumented immigrants as “greedy, selfish, criminal delinquents” is offensive, sure, but it’s supposed to be — Swagger and Colter are heels. Throughout its history, pro wrestling has handled the tricky issue of race by painting racist characters as the bad guys they are, while turning minority wrestlers into heroes. This formula made the Junkyard Dog a huge star in the 1980s South. Wrestling fans know that race-baiting is part of the show. Offensive as it may be, it’s part of the tapestry of sexism and homophobia and violence that takes a hundred offensive threads and sews them up into a ramshackle, modern Iliad.
People who aren’t wrestling fans, on the other hand, aren’t in on the joke. This is clearly the case with the tea party movement, which Swagger and Colter both portray and lampoon. With so many excitable conservative commentators (and so many on-air hours to kill), it seemed inevitable that WWE would succeed in provoking the tea party.
First up was syndicated radio host Alex Jones, who took to the airwaves on February 19 to complain that the Swagger character was an attempt to demonize the tea party by mainstream Republicans Vince and Linda McMahon. In subsequent broadcasts, Jones surmised that WWE cast Swagger as a villain because “now there’s nothing worse than a white person” in America, and he implied that the departments of Justice and Defense were funding WWE’s anti-American agenda. But how, one might ask, could WWE be anti-American when they put on those “Tribute to the Troops” shows? “It doesn’t mean ‘thank the troops,'” Jones explained. “They thank the police state, they thank the global empire, they thank the New World Order2 to get us ready for troops on the streets.” One imagines WWE writers listening to this, smirking, and scribbling feverishly.
nWo pun presumably not intended.
Next, the conservative blogosphere jumped to attention. Michelle Malkin snarked that the story line was “ripped straight from yesterday’s headlines”3 and Breitbart.com wrote “It’s hard to imagine a bigger PR blunder. Expect a mea culpa any minute now.” Before long, Glenn Beck was in the mix. Beck, a blustery, conspiratorial shape-shifter with a penchant for showmanship that rivals McMahon’s,4 was a near-perfect target for WWE. Beck started by addressing Linda McMahon, who twice ran for a Connecticut Senate seat, nominally as a tea party candidate: “Linda McMahon, I’m sorry you didn’t win. Now we know how she really feels.” As Beck dissected the first Colter promo, he accused WWE of caricaturing its own fan base. When one of Beck’s sidekicks pointed out that wrestling has always had over-the-top villains like The Iron Sheik, Beck said, “The problem is that a bunch of sheiks were not watching WWE. You’re making a villain out of 80 percent of your audience who are tired of being miscast.” But it’s Beck’s bias that shows through. Wrestling fans aren’t a bunch of hillbillies. As Marc Ambinder put it: “Wrestling might not seem ‘progressive’ to him, but wrestling fans are young. They’re of the Obama generation. They like to be on the right side of history. Actually, if you look at wrestling storylines years back, you’ll see how the script matches or tries to catch up with the political zeitgeist.”
As any wrestling fan knows, that critique is, well, ripped from yesterday’s headlines. WWE has always been late to the game when it comes to pop-culture references.
Like McMahon, Beck is constantly attempting to expand his fiefdom into multimedia dominance, due in equal parts to capitalist Manifest Destiny and pretensions of self-worth.
Overall, however, Beck was less defiant than gloomy. “I can take it from a lot of people,” he said, “but I can’t take it from the stupid wrestling people.” This is the quote that has been most commonly reproduced in news stories and blog posts, but Beck’s comment was actually a self-critique of sorts. Look what directly followed it: “I can’t take it from the stupid wrestling people, especially since a lot of the people that watch wrestling are not New York elites.” Beck wasn’t saying “Get off my lawn” or “Get out of my country,” but instead “Get away from my audience.”
WWE’s immediate response was to try to lead Beck into a confrontation. They invited him onto this past Monday’s Raw, but Beck tweeted that he was busy “doing anything else,” so WWE sent announcer Michael Cole to Beck’s production studio to shame Beck for his indifference in a weird cross between Geraldo Rivera and the D-Generation X Invasion of WCW.
The most impactful response to Beck, however, came not from the WWE front office but from Swagger and Colter, who recorded a new wooden-fence oratory. But, this time, after the promo ended, the camera angle changed, and Colter and Swagger were revealed to be standing on a soundstage in front of a green screen. They introduced themselves by their real names and explained in plain, straightforward terms how the pro wrestling enterprise works. Those anti-immigration speeches? Those were just promos, said Zeb — “a scene we record to elicit a positive or negative reaction from our fans.” The substance was irrelevant. “We aren’t in the political business or the immigration business,” he continued, “we are in the entertainment business.” After shaming Beck with a litany of audience demographics, Zeb and Swagger launched back into their rant as if nothing had happened. And Monday on Raw, even when Zeb mentioned Beck, he didn’t have to break character to do it. That was probably the most revealing thing about the broadcast — of course WWE was going to keep talking about Beck if it meant more mainstream attention, but they didn’t need to address his wrestling illiteracy on the air. They didn’t need to explain why Zeb and Swagger act the way they do, because everybody knows wrestling is staged. Beck should understand this, too, because as much as anyone, Beck knows what it is to be a performer.
Back in 2010, Beck, speaking about his business, told Forbes that “we’re an entertainment company” and that he “could give a flying crap about the political process.” Sound familiar? One can only assume that Beck took this message to heart. Being a jackass is easy; playing one convincingly requires talent.
The WWE-Beck feud was so obvious that one wonders why it hadn’t already happened. Immediately after Beck lashed out at WWE, rumors began swirling that Beck was in on the act, although his lack of interest in responding to WWE probably rules that out. Unlike WWE, Beck and his ilk may be self-aware in Forbes interviews, but not in their product. WWE’s decision to have Zeb and Swagger break character was the most galling thing it could have done, because on some level, even wrestling fans think Beck was right. They think other wrestling fans are idiots who don’t know wrestling is fake. That video was a formal acknowledgment by WWE that there’s no difference between smart fans and marks anymore. Everybody is in on the joke.
Some things, however, are too real to make it into the story line. On February 19, Swagger was pulled over and arrested in Mississippi for driving under the influence and for marijuana possession. In the past, wrestlers have been suspended and even fired for similar offenses, and there was widespread assumption that the same fate would befall Swagger. But that was not to be this time, not with the attention his character was getting. When TMZ asked about the incident, WWE came back with a rather libertarian response — “Mr. Swagger is responsible for his own personal actions” — and that was that. The great irony of the situation is that for all his disgust at WWE, Glenn Beck probably saved Swagger’s career.
Beck is less interested in defending his ideology than he is in defending his turf, which is likely why he refuses to help draw eyes to WWE. But that won’t stop WWE from trying to keep using the situation to its advantage, and that’s something Beck surely understands.
In 2011, when Donald Trump was using every opportunity to call President Obama a Muslim or a foreign national, Beck tried to express his discomfort. “The last thing the country needs is a showboat,” he told Bill O’Reilly. “I would hope we could get serious candidates who could shake things up by not saying provocative things, just by stating the truth of what’s going on.”
“But then you and I would be off the air,” O’Reilly answered, “because we’re provocateurs. We do that every day.” Somewhere, Vince McMahon must have been nodding his head in approval.